cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by hans s

Based on the recommendation of Barbara Ganley (one of whom I would recommend following recommendations thereof) for the past few weeks I’ve been dabbling in Cowbird, an online storytelling platform that center heavily on photography as well as original writing.

Cowbird is one of several inspiring projects by artist Jonathan Harris (if you have not spent time there before, check out We Feel Fine, The Whale Hunt, and 10×10).

Tagged as “a witness to life”, Cowbird is described as

Cowbird allows you to keep a beautiful audio-visual diary of your life, and to collaborate with others in documenting the overarching “sagas“ that shape our world today. Sagas are themes and events that touch millions of lives and shape the human story.

Our short-term goal is to pioneer a new form of participatory journalism, grounded in the simple human stories behind major news events. Our long-term goal is to build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as part of the commons, available for this and future generations to look to for guidance.

Essentially, what is created revolves around a high resolution image that becomes the first focus of a story, and is accompanied by text and/or audio. In typifying Harris’s style, it is both rich and simple at the same time. When you write something in cowbird, you are asked for meta data (without them saying, please give us meta data) that includes location, time, people, keywords that become a way to create meta organizers of content from across the site.

There are no comments in cowbird, and the feedback you give is more than giving it a like, you “love it” (technically the same thing of course), and you can follow the work of others as well as share outwardly through social media. One of the unique features is the idea of sprouting a story, where you can write a new story inspired by the work of another (hey, it’s like a trackback only more spiritual?).

There are rich experiences just in the exploring of the space, and in fact, they suggest when you start that you first explore, and express your loves before starting to write (this is a useful suggestion for any creative site), I believe that access is still by invite or responding to a request for an account, but I found it did not take long for this to happen.

There’s plenty more covered in the FAQ. Enough of the what it is, what the bleep am I doing there?

I’ve been spinning the neuorons trying to figure out what, if anything, I would do with my experience last year of not working and traveling- I have tons of things written as blog/diary and photography, plus all the stuff I collected in the storybox.

Writing a book? meh, too much work, the world has plenty of stories like this. Making a movie? ditto. I was really looking for something that was of the web.

So here are my cowbirdings.

What I am doing is going back to my photos from a year ago, flickr’s archive lends itself easily- May 8 2011, I was walking about Manhattan, and using those as my own sprouts for creating something- only sometimes narrative of events or places, but more so just stories. Sometimes it is a look back at myself and what I was doing/thinking, but in other cases I am just writing fiction. Mostly it just emerges after selecting what I think is an interesting photo and seeing what comes out of reflecting on it

In tine for a change, I open it with a stretch back to my first day of self-unemployment.

What is it about for the cheese we are about to receive? I don’t know, it is just what that image brought back.

Sometimes it is just gibberish– for this photo of a weathered pip at the bottom of Fossil Creek Canyon

I ended up just babbling w words – is “w’d” a story?

weathered, witness, worn, washed, withered, was, watching, wizened, wayward, witchy, wonder.


In other cases I make up other people’s conversations- we gotta talk

And as a sprout example, my cowbird of a stack of wood, written as parts and whole was sprouted by Barbara in her Five Cords. I’ve hear her tell the story, and it is powerful in all forms (as good stories are)- and her story has sprouted 3 more – how cool is that; plus her was featured last week as a Story of the Day.

There are interesting things here just in shaping your own space but as well the networked space of stories- the notion of stories sprouting stories sprouting stories is the kind of viralness that is more interesting than cat videos.

Right now, I do not know where, if anywhere, I will go with this. Like my trip, I just have chosen a vehicle and a general direction. I like the idea of this as both a reflective and creative activity; I can look at the stories as a lens to myself inward but also the world outward.

It may just end up as another of my piles f digital stuff that does nothing on this own. But I remain convinced the doing of activities like this, be it daily photos, writing, etc, is one that does more than we realize at the time.

I plan to keep at the cowbirding, especially as the clock rolls into late June when my trip last year started. Right now it is pretty much my personal thing, and that is my audience. It sits nicely in the space of narrating and making shit up. And it puts photos front and center, where for me, the creative metaphor juice is freshly squeezed.


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Alan,

    I’m so glad you’ve blogged about Cowbird–I was just thinking this morning that if I was still a classroom teacher, I’d have my students read Cowbird stories and then join and participate. I’d want them to feel their way about this community and discover what sharing stories here does to them as storytellers and community members.

    Here are a few (rambling) thoughts:

    I’ve found it very very interesting that so few of the people I have come to know on the Web have tried it. What’s the hesitation? I think spending some time on Cowbird would be good for folks’ perspective. It would slow them down, have them go deep into experience and playfulness and connections to be made through story. Simple human connections. No megaphones. No preaching. No echo chambers. Frankly I haven’t read much new on blogs for years. And even #ds106 seems too clubby to me. (Sorry…) Cowbird pulls in all kinds of people from all kinds of places relating all kinds of stories. And most of the stories, even though intensely personal, do not get snagged on the me-me-me principle.

    There’s no way to comment on Cowbird unless you’re actually doing it.

    As you’ve described, Cowbird is really quite unlike anything else on the Web and yet it is completely of the Web. When I first joined in December, I spent weeks and weeks just looking around, wondering if I would ever post a story. It seemed so personal. So not about the writing itself but about the experienced to be shared. Hmmm… I wasn’t sure about that. I’ve always been in love with words as experiences in themselves. One photo and that was all? If people were just dashing together pieces, how was that different from blogs or Facebook?

    But then I took the leap, and now some 55 stories into it, I am fascinated by this community and what interacting through our stories–and only through our stories–does to me as a writer and a person. It has made me much less of a writing snob and a better writer. Taken me off my high horse. Let me play around just for the heck of it and see if people respond. Sprout stories. Dedicate stories to other Cowbirders. Learn from their experiences. And, learn from their photos and their writing.

    Yes, there are a few Cowbirders I follow who blow me away with their writing–what they say and how they say it. I am moved and taught. I am a better writer and better person for having experienced their stories.

    And I’ve even had a few Cowbirders venture off Cowbird and find me on email to open a conversation about writing and life. One of these storytellers has now largely left Cowbird but has become a friend. It’s like the magic I felt when I first blogged. But even better somehow. more relaxed. People are not trying to wow you on Cowbird. Or be smart. There’s no room for wow. It’s not about wow. They’re just sharing. As interested in reading as in writing. Listening. Witnessing.

    There are some things I don’t like about the curating of the stories, but that’s for another comment, or an actual post on my dormant blog! Ha!

  2. Department of Endless Synchronicity
    I have also just gotten involved in Cowbird. I am in the reading stage and the wondering if this is something I want to do stage.

    I look forward to looking for your material during my next reading session!

  3. Alan,

    Here’s another “w” word for ya: WOW.

    How do you find the time to do all the stuff you do?? There must be something in the air at DTLT… You guys need to definitely find a way to bottle and market it. 🙂 And you’re such a gifted storyteller. …so generous and fearless in sharing your thoughts.

    I looked at some your stuff on Cowbird, and what a cool place it is! I tried to “love” your iPhone story but it required registration, so I chickened out. Ha!

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